Agile 101 (Part 1 of 3): Agile vs. Agility

Or Agile 101 for Smarties

Business agility and agile methodology have long surpassed any danger of being labeled flavor-of-the-month business trends. While various approaches pre-date it, The Agile Manifesto published in 2001 is credited with igniting the trend (beginning with, and now expanding beyond software development) toward project management approaches and business strategies designed for rapid innovation and adaptation. 

Organizations across industries and around the globe are adopting agile frameworks to increase revenue, reduce costs, and time to market while minimizing risk and maximizing value. 

Studies estimate that upwards of 75% of organizations are currently using or soon plan to adopt agile at some level (Freeform Dynamics, 2018). 

These trends don’t mean that agile is right for every project. Sometimes more traditional waterfall project management is best, especially if your project(s) is clearly defined, fairly routine and has minimal chance of new discoveries or changes along the way. Nonetheless, chances are good that you or your organization are using an agile methodology, such as Scrum or Kanban, in at least one of your teams. Perhaps you have been asked to join a Scrum team or take on some other role in an agile team.

Your company may be in the midst of an agile or digital transformation, and you hear terms like SAfe® or enterprise agility. Or, maybe you simply understand that to stay competitive in your industry, responsive to your customer needs, and a rapidly changing marketplace, you, your team, and entire organization need to be more agile.

SCRUM AGILE LEANBecause I have been working with leaders, teams, and organizations across industries that fall into each of these categories in recent years, and am frequently asked to distinguish between various agility terms and approaches, I have written this series of articles on the topic to help you distinguish between overall organizational agility dynamics and practices, and specific agile methodologies and frameworks so that you can begin to determine which might be right for you.

This series is not intended as an in-depth discussion of each approach, however, throughout each post, you will find links to additional detail that may be helpful in your exploration.

My intention is to provide leaders at all levels of the organization a broad view of the approaches that organizations across industries are using, to call out some of their critical success factors potential pitfalls that are often overlooked in the initial burst of enthusiasm.

With this big picture in view, my goal is to save you time, money and heartache and set you up for a wildly successful agility shift. 

Agility vs Agile Frameworks and Agile Methodologies

In this first post in the series, I will provide a very high-level description of some of the approaches that agile project teams are using to improve their processes and results.

I will go into much more detail on the topic of business agility in Part 3 of this series. Broadly, I view agility with an understanding that organizations are human systems of interaction. This means that we make sense of what is going on and get things done with and through other people. A humanistic understanding of business agility points not to a dictionary definition, but to a competence statement:

Agility is your ability to respond effectively to the unexpected and unplanned and quickly turn challenges into opportunities (The Agility Shift, 2015).

The individual, team and organizational capacities required to develop and sustain this competence require continuous attention and are the foundation for the successful implementation of the agile approaches I overview in this post. Rather than think of business agility and agile frameworks and methodologies as separate, they are interdependent.

What is the Difference Between Scrum, Lean, and Design Thinking?

Many agilists (people who embrace agile principles and practices or a specific agile approach) are fond of saying that “there is no agile methodology,” only agile frameworks that provide concepts and guidelines for improved project management and delivery.

In practice, most agile teams settle on and adopt a specific methodology. From here on out, I will refer to these as methodologies, recognizing that each approach is intended as a set of guiding principles and practices that can (and should) be adapted and refined to fit your needs.

Whether you are practicing Scrum (by far the most common agile methodology), Kanban, Crystal, XP or others (see brief descriptions of several methodologies here), agile methodologies share the same goal: to minimize risk and maximize value.

Agile vs. Agility SCRUM

 

Sample Scrum Overview

Agile methodologies, as practiced today, began in manufacturing, were modified in software

Agile software development

The Cycle of Agile Software Development

development, and are now used widely across domains for everything from new product development, marketing, event planning, learning and development, and R & D, to name just a few.

Regardless of the focus, agile methodologies center around rapid prototyping cycles (often called sprints) with each iteration focusing on delivering the highest value aspects of the project for inspection and adaptation.

In close collaboration with the end-user or other key stakeholders, agile teams quickly receive feedback that they use to inform planning and priorities for the next cycle.

 

When You Should Consider an Agile Methodology

Agile methodologies are ideal for complex projects where discoveries are likely to be made at each iteration, and requirements are likely to change as other new information becomes available.

Changing requirements and new learning are why IT projects are now almost exclusively developed using agile today. The exponential growth in agile is due to the realization that any complex project can benefit from an agile approach, such as marketing campaigns, change management, mergers and acquisitions, even family life

 

Critical Success Factors: There is a significant learning curve associated with adopting and implementing an agile methodology. It takes time to build what I call the Three Cs of the Agility Shift: Competence, Capacity, and Confidence. Before embarking on this learning curve, ask yourself:

  • “Do we have the commitment, resources, and patience to progress from novices to experts?”
  • “Do we have leadership buy-in and support?”
  • “Do we understand and have the willingness to make the mindset shift necessary for this new way of working to thrive?”

If the answer is yes to these questions, I highly recommend you and as many of your colleagues as possible start, as I did, by getting your ScrumMaster® Certification or share another immersive learning experience to become familiar with your agile methodology of choice.

 

Lean 

LEAN ManufactoringIn the same eco-system as agile methodologies, Lean approaches are designed to maximize customer value and minimize waste. While most strongly associated with its manufacturing roots,

Lean is also used in service delivery. As its name implies, the goal is to create the leanest, or most cost-effective value chain through experimentation and testing, to discover or refine standardized processes. Organizations from healthcare to consulting are adopting the principles and practices of lean.

 

When You Should Consider Lean

With its focus on cost and waste reduction, as well as efficiency, lean can be particularly useful LEANfor systems and processes that are relatively routine and include many moving parts. 

 

Critical Success Factors: Focusing solely on cost reduction and efficiency at the expense of continuous learning and innovation, which are processes that can be inherently messy. Meeting time and budget goals can lead to something called “technical debt,” a concept rooted in software development that applies more broadly.

It is a “debt” that is incurred when a team chooses an expedient but flawed solution that has to be paid, usually with interest, at a later date when the overlooked problem is even bigger and more expensive to solve.

 

Design Thinking

With many of the characteristics of agile methodology, design thinking, or human-centered design (HCD), might also be worth your consideration. While agile is considered a project management approach, design thinking is geared toward problem framing and solving (or alternatively, opportunity finding and exploiting). The human experience is central in both agile and design thinking.

Agilists often start by understanding the user experience and translating those experiences into user stories which include a statement of a user experience that needs to be improved; while design thinking teams start with empathizing with the person(s) who have the problem they have identified and craft user statements as their starting point to generate innovative solutions.

The most common design thinking framework includes the stages in the graphic below, with the understanding that there is no one right way to execute each phase. Tim Frick and Emily Lonigro, CEOs of their respective Chicago-based digital media companies, Mightybytes and LimeRed, have written an excellent article that details two business examples of how they have applied design thinking and HCD in their businesses. Lest you think design thinking is exclusively for creative businesses, check out how global logistics company UPS regularly applies the approach to identify and solve customer problems, reporting: “We can’t emphasize enough the importance of rapid prototyping, testing with real customers and iterating or even pivoting based on those learnings.”

  

Design Thinking Overview

When You Should Consider Design Thinking

Design Thinking OverviewDesign thinking and HCD are especially useful when you have a complex situation with many stakeholders and need a process to clarify the problem or opportunity by engaging many perspectives. It is also excellent when innovation is your top priority.While not the originators of design thinking (here is an excellent history) IDEO has become a leader in applying and teaching the process for new product and service development as well as for humanizing, simplifying, and solving complex organizational and social issues.

Critical Success Factors: Design thinking is a highly participatory approach, and to do it well, you need to make time and space to engage multiple perspectives, experiences, and voices of those who have or are touched by the issue.

It may be tempting to leapfrog over or truncate this stage in the interest of saving time and money, but doing so will undermine the essence of the process: the humans at the center of HCD. These diverse experiences and perspectives provide valuable insight to spur innovation; they can also disrupt your assumptions about the issue.

Do not start a design thinking process if you are already attached to your preconceived ideas; DO start the process if you are willing to listen and be surprised by what you discover.

Once they have experimented with and adopted agile methodologies in one or more areas and begun realizing the benefits, many organizations begin to scale these approaches across the enterprise. In Part 2 of this series Agile 101: Enterprise Agility Strategies, I overview the most common approaches and pitfalls of enterprise agility.


 

Are You Ready to Make The Agility Shift?


Pamela Meyer, Ph.D., is the author of The Agility Shift: Creating Agile and Effective Leaders, Teams and Organizations. As president of Meyer Agile Innovation, Inc. she is a sought-after keynote speaker and works with agile teams, as well as leaders across industries who need innovative learning and talent development strategies to make the mindset and business shift to compete in a rapidly changing marketplace.

Agile 101 (Part 3 of 3): Developing and Sustaining Agile Leaders

Agile 101 (Part 3 of 3): Developing and Sustaining Agile Leaders

Developing and Sustaining Agile Leaders, Teams, and Organizations

In Part One [insert link] I shared the inspiration for this three-part series. In a nutshell, this series is for anyone whose organization has made agility a top strategic priority. This includes, but is not limited to, companies that are adopting agile methodologies at the team level, are starting to scale agile across the enterprise (see Part Two of this series), or have more broadly understood that business agility is critical to staying competitive in a rapidly changing world. This final post is for you if your organization fits any of these categories, and you want to assure that your investment in business agility delivers the results you seek.

“Where Should We Start?”

The question above is the first one leaders ask after committing to being more agile. Of course, before we can answer that question, we must agree on what are we talking about when we talk about agility?

Broadly, I describe agility as your ability to respond effectively to the unexpected and unplanned and quickly turn challenges into opportunities.

This is not a dictionary definition but a performance statement. The leaders I work with don’t need to know what agility looks like on paper; they need to know what it looks like in action.

The goal of any agile initiative is not agility itself, but sustained performance through both stable and volatile conditions.

To consistently achieve this level of performance, the organizations I have researched and work with consistently attend to each of the six dynamics of the Agility Shift. To fully understand each dynamic and how to bring it to life in your organization, I direct you to my book, The Agility Shift: Creating Agile Leaders, Teams and Organizations, as well as my website for additional resources. Below is a brief introduction to each of the dynamics:

Relational Web

Relational Web: The network of skills, knowledge, talent, and resources that you need to be able to tap at a moment’s notice when things don’t go as planned or a new opportunity emerges. 

Relevant: The ability to understand current trends, customer and workforce needs, and adapt to stay relevant to and competitive in the market. 

Responsive: The ability to respond in a timely and effective way to unexpected and unplanned challenges and opportunities.

Resilient: The ability to quickly regroup when things don’t go as planned.

Resourceful: The ability to make optimal and innovative use of available resources.

Reflective: The ability to learn the lessons from experience and thoughtfully apply those lessons to new and emerging situations. 

Agility and Agile methodologies are certainly not mutually exclusive. You don’t need to adopt a specific agile methodology to improve your leadership, team, or organizational agility. Yet, adopting an agile methodology without attending to the necessary mindset, culture, and practice shifts will not yield the hoped-for results, especially over the long haul.

Making the Mindset and Culture Shift So Agility Can Thrive

Now that we have a shared understanding of agility and the six dynamics necessary to sustain it, we must understand and make (and continue to make) the mindset and culture shift required to thrive in this radical (for many) new ways of working.

A recent joint global survey by Forbes Insights and the Scrum Alliance of 1,000 C-suite executives across industries that found 83% of respondents cite an agile mindset/flexibility as the most essential characteristic of today’s C-suite (2018).

At its core, an agile mindset and culture value learning and change over planning and control.

In my research of more than 1,500 leaders at all levels of business and industry, an agile mindset is tightly linked to two key aspects of agility: Responsiveness and Resourcefulness.

Responsive and Resourceful

In particular, the ability to quickly turn challenges into opportunities and look for opportunities in the midst of change are strongly connected to Agility Shift Inventory-takers’ ability to be responsive and resourceful. These mindset attributes also strongly differentiate the most agile from the least agile respondents in the Agility Shift Inventory

Reinforcing our research, when Nigel Davies at Forbes interviewed several leaders about the pitfalls of adopting agile, he also found that mindset was a common challenge.

For example, Christopher McFarlane, an agile project manager for Walmart Canada, shared with him, “instilling an agile mindset internally is one of the hardest things about the transition.” Successfully building an agile organization is also an endurance sport, says David Fort, managing director at Haines Watts Manchester, “Being an agile business isn’t a start-stop scenario, it’s a constant shift in culture and balance that has to be regularly revisited. If you stop running as an agile business, you’re likely to seize up. The real challenge is ensuring the agility is fresh, and the team members are focused on being agile.” (Davies, 2019)

Adding urgency to the need to attend to the leadership mindset is that many organizations are not yet seeing the expected returns of their formidable investments in agility because leaders underestimated the mindset and cultural shift that would be required for a successful transformation.

Mindset and culture are directly linked. Mindset influences thinking; thinking influences our actions; culture is created through repeated patterns of thinking and acting.

Version One’s survey of 1,319 leaders in organizations ranging from less than 1,000 employees to greater than 20,000 found that the top challenge in a successful agile transformation is that their current culture is at odds with the degree of communication, collaboration, self-organization and continuous learning that is at the heart of agile practices. Coming in a close second is an overarching organizational resistance to change (13th Annual State of Agile Report, 2018).

There is good news, however. The Forbes Insights and the Scrum Alliance report cited earlier also found that those organizations that were realizing results from their adoption of agile practices also reported strong cultural alignment, while those that were not yet seeing a return cited organizational culture as the impediment (2018). Leaders have a significant influence over the success or failure of agile initiatives as they set the tone, model, and reinforce the underlying beliefs, values, and behaviors that make up their organizational cultures. 

This growing body of evidence all points in the same direction: any organization that makes agility a top strategic priority, must also prioritize learning and talent development strategies that support the critical mindset and behavioral shifts necessary to achieve the results of these investments.  

Our work in recent years with companies like T-Mobile (see case story and webinar) demonstrates the power of engaging leaders across the enterprise in high-content, high engagement learning, and development experiences and has yielded exciting results. In addition to high net-promoter scores, showing initial enthusiasm, a rigorous analysis of how learning is being applied across the organization is demonstrating significant business value. If an organization like T-Mobile, operating in an extremely competitive environment and through years-long uncertainty of a possible merger can sustain results, your organization can, too. 

Supporting Your Organization’s Agility Shift Through Learning and Talent Development

Just like reaching your health and fitness goals, developing and sustaining business agility, is not a one-time endeavor but a commitment to a new way of life. Fitness experts have found that the secret to sustained success is consistency and variety. The same is true for your organization’s leadership, team, and organizational agility.

Making the Agility Shift

Making the Agility Shift

Attaining a consistent practice for agility requires an approach that includes enough variety to keep your workforce stretching and growing. The strategies we have found most impactful put the mindset shift in the center and build the Three Cs of The Agility Shift: Competence, Capacity, and Confidence. Consistent and innovative learning and development approaches in each of these areas reinforce a culture in which agile thinking and behavior can thrive.

 

Scalable Talent Development Approaches for Agile Leaders, Teams, and Organizations

One of the challenges in supporting organization-wide agility initiatives is providing meaningful and impactful learning opportunities across the enterprise. Whether led by your in-house training team or outside contractors, you are likely constrained by budget, available time (both training professionals’ and employees’ available time), as well as personnel.

We use several highly adaptable strategies to help our clients overcome these barriers:

  • Human Resource Strategies: To ensure an integrated approach across the organization, we often work with HR and Talent Development leaders. Aligning staffing, talent development, performance appraisal, and coaching with agile organizational goals helps assure that you are building a workplace culture in which agility can thrive. 
  • Train-the-Trainer: We work with in-house learning and development professionals to train and certify them in customizable modules that they can then use to lead sessions for leaders at all levels of the organization. We provide an Agility Shift Facilitator Guide and participant materials. This approach offers the most flexible and comprehensive approach for building and sustaining an agile workforce.
  • Agility Champion Training: In this immersive training session, we help designated Agility Champions throughout the organization learn the foundational concepts and best practices of team and leadership agility, while building their competence, capacity and confidence as an agility resource person, coach and activity facilitator. Agility Champions are also trained on and given access to a series of micro-learning resources and Take it to Your Team activities they can use to support continuous leadership and team development. 
  • Agility Lab Micro-learning Resources: Many managers and agile team leaders like to integrate our range of micro-learning resources and guided activities to support team engagement, innovation, and performance. These resources can be used one-on-one or to kick-off a meeting, planning session or integrated into a retrospective.
  • Agility Assessment: Often, the biggest challenge in making the Agility Shift is the mindset shift and understanding how that mindset shift translates into new habits in each of the six dynamics of the agility shift. The Agility Shift Inventory (ASI) helps individuals and teams discover where their greatest strengths and opportunities lie and so that they invest their time and resources for maximum impact.
  • Coaching: Because agile ways of thinking and working represent a significant shift for most leaders and team members, we provide individualized coaching to help contributors make their own agility shift so they can ensure their teams and the organization realize results from their agile initiatives.
  • Leadership Development: An agile leader is anyone who spots a challenge or opportunity and effectively responds. Now more than ever, organizations need agile leaders at all levels of the business who can lead effectively in the midst of rapid change and uncertainty. Your current and emerging leaders need to be able to consistently model and inspire others to make the Agility Shift.
  • Team Development: Agile organizations are team-centric and increasingly networked. The best investment you can make is in team success, whether or not you are adopting agile methodologies, teams need to be able to effectively innovate and adapt, as well as communicate, collaborate and coordinate resources. We help teams build their agility competence through high-content, high-engagement development days that integrate reflection and action planning based on the results of their Team Agility Shift Inventory.
  • Customized Solutions: There is no one-size-fits-all solution for any organization. Your business priorities, leadership commitment, environment, and available resources all dictate which strategy is best for you. We work with organizations to determine the approach that will be most effective and sustainable to improve performance.

When You Should Consider an Agile Learning and Talent Development Approach

The good news is that building your organization’s overall competence, capacity, and confidence in agility is compatible with overall organizational agility objectives and each of the agile methodologies and agile transformation approaches described in this blog series. Not only is it compatible, but it is essential that you provide engaging and motivating development opportunities and help your leaders and teams make and sustain the necessary mindset and practical shift required to deliver results. Because we, as humans, are hard-wired to scan our environments for threats (read changes and disruptions) and avoid or resist them at all costs, we need new and continuous practices to help us make the intentional shifts to help us maximize each new disruption and opportunity. Whichever approach you choose, you need to have a strategy that helps your human system of interactions engage with and deliver the positive benefits and outcomes of your agility shift.


Which learning and development approach is right for you?

SCHEDULE TIME WITH PAMELA MEYER TO FIND OUT

 


Pamela Meyer, Ph.D. is the author of The Agility Shift: Creating Agile and Effective Leaders, Teams and Organizations. She is a sought-after keynote speaker and works with leaders and teams across industries who need innovative learning and talent development strategies to make the mindset and business shift to compete in a rapidly changing marketplace.

Additional References

13th Annual State of Agile Report. (2018). Retrieved from https://www.stateofagile.com/

Davies, N. (2019). Agile Deserves The Hype, But It Can Also Fail: How To Avoid The Pitfalls. Forbes. Retrieved from Forbes website: https://www.forbes.com/sites/nigeldavies/2019/07/02/agile-deserves-the-hype-but-it-can-also-fail-how-to-avoid-the-pitfalls/#c9ced757a0cf

How Agile and DevOps enable digital readiness and transformation. (2018). Hampshire, UK: Freeform Dynamics.

The Elusive Agile Enterprise: How the Right Leadership Mindset, Workforce and Culture Can Transform Your Organization. Jersey City, NJ: Forbes Insights and the Scrum Alliance (2018). Retrieved from: https://www.scrumalliance.org/ScrumRedesignDEVSite/media/Forbes-Media/ScrumAlliance_REPORT_FINAL-WEB.pdf

Schwartz, J., Collins, L., Stockton, H., Wagner, D., & Walsh, B. (2017). Rewriting the Rules for the Digital Age: 2017 Deloitte Human Capital Trends. Retrieved from: https://www2.deloitte.com/content/dam/Deloitte/global/Documents/HumanCapital/hc-2017-global-human-capital-trends-gx.pdf

 

 

What will it cost you NOT to be AGILE in 2018?

What will it cost you NOT to be agile in 2018? Here’s what to do about it!

Welcome to the new year! Full of possibilities, new goals and initiatives. Speaking of new initiatives: in working with organizations, I am often asked to help make the business case for improved agility to ensure buy-in from leadership, the board and across the organization. The case is compelling and I’ve detailed it in my recent book and a number of previous articles, as well as in every keynote and workshop I give.

The case includes studies that show a strong relationship between organizational agility and sustained results (which, of course, is the ultimate metric for agile success). In my workshops, I regularly invite participants to identify their own industry or even role-specific ROI for agility. We start by asking: What will be improved if you or your team/organization were more agile?

 

Many respond with variations of examples I have already shared, such as increased market share and improved time to market. Others struggle to identify specific success indicators. When people struggle to identify what could be improved, I have found it often helps to flip the question and ask: 

 

What will it cost you NOT to be more agile?

 

Or what will you lose if your competitors are more agile than you in 2018? It may be helpful to answer this question in 1, 3, 5 and 10 year increments. While indicators like market share and time to market are still at risk, flipping the question might also unearth more costs.

Here are just a few candidates:

  • Brand relevance
  • Ability to attract and retain top talent
  • Customer satisfaction/loyalty
  • Overall competitiveness
  • Profitability

Depending on your industry, you will likely find that within a few years not becoming more agile is actually an existential threat . 

 

Determining the potential cost or benefit of becoming more agile in 2018 is more than an intellectual exercise. It is an opportunity to engage the passion and commitment necessary to sustain agile practices across the enterprise.

 

In the Harvard Business Review article that previewed his still influential book, Leading Change (1996), John P. Kotter identified not establishing a great enough sense of urgency as the number one reason change efforts fail. Unless your ability to be agile is elevated to an urgent strategic priority, your likelihood of success is minimal.

The good news is that for those that develop this sense of urgency, the success rate may be as high as 75% (Kotter, 2006). As you look ahead to all you want to create and accomplish in the new year, take time to engage your colleagues’ hearts and minds in the urgent need to develop organization-wide competence, capacity and confidence to execute your strategy with agility.

Kotter, J. (2006). Leading change: Why transformation efforts fail. Harvard Business Review, Best of HBR, 2006 (1710), 1-10.

 

 

Need help becoming more agile in 2018?

Contact Pamela Meyer About Consulting

Through a wide range of consulting services, Meyer Creativity Associates, led by Pamela Meyer, Ph.D., will help you improve your organization’s results.

Reclaiming Play (at Work)

[Reprinted with permission from DePaul Workplace Learning blog]

If you are like most of us, you likely got the idea along the way that work and play are incompatible. Work is serious, focused and productive while play is silly, unfocused and unproductive. This belief was socialized into us from a very early age with parents and caregivers who shooed us away when we attempted to recruit a playmate with “Not now, honey, can’t you see I’m working?”

Pamela talks about putting more play into work in this recent First Business Interview

As it turns out individuals and organizations that chose not to believe that work and play must live in separate domains are thriving. Google, one of the most successful businesses of all time, lists on its website one of the “Top Ten Reasons to Work at Google”: ‘‘Work and play are not mutually exclusive: It is possible to code and pass the puck at the same time.’’

Google and many other organizations embrace two forms of play:

—   Diversionary

—   Engaging

Diversionary play is when we take a short break to play a game, stretch, participate in a contest. This type of play refreshes and energizes us, while building social bonds that are crucial to getting work done. Research also shows that when people return from diversionary play or short warm-up activities they are more creative and engaged (Conti, Amabile, & Pollack, 1995).

Engaging Play is when the work itself becomes a form of play. People are playing with new ideas, enthusiastically playing new roles, creating more play (flexibility) in the system and developing the capacity for improvised play. This form of play can come to life in a committee meeting, over coffee with a colleague or even working solo. The most important thing is that you are giving yourself permission to explore new ideas and perspectives and doing so from a place of intrinsic motivation.

Each of these forms of play reinforces the other. When we regularly take play breaks we return refreshed and energized to approach our work more playfully and creatively. When our work is a form of play, we are likely to enjoy diversionary activities with our colleagues and continue to build a culture of innovation, learning and change.

Conti, R., Amabile, T. M., & Pollack, S. (1995). The positive impact of creative activity: Effects of creative task engagement and motivational focus on college students’ learning. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 21, 1107-1116.

Creating the Agile Organization: Learning to Play Within the Givens

Sitting in the audience during any long-form improvised theatrical performance the importance of memory becomes readily apparent. One of the best-known long-form improvisations, “The Harold,” was developed by Del Close (Halpern, Close, & Johnson, 1994) and is performed several nights a week at Chicago’s IO (formerly Improv Olympic). Based on a single suggestion from the audience the players begin to “jam” together as they explore the interesting dimensions and associations with the suggestion. This jam session may start with a motion, sound, phrase, exclamation or any number of responses. As the players accept and explore these discoveries soon the first scene and characters emerge, and the players not directly involved on-stage retreat to the sidelines as intent participant-observers to the unfolding action.

 

Collectively, the players must hold both the original “given” (the audience suggestion) and all of the discoveries that emerge from that given. Their challenge is to use this organizational memory to fuel their discoveries, improvised characters and action over the next forty-five or so minutes. If their relationship to this memory is overly procedural (tied to successful bits and characters from past performances), they will not be able to continue to unfold the action and mine the givens for increasingly surprising discoveries, but fall into recursive routines enacting the original assumptions and one-dimensional dynamics.
Organizations are similarly challenged as others (Moorman & Miner, 1998a; Vera & Crossan, 2004) have described, impeded in their ability to improvise when they are overly tied to routines and procedures. However, memory of past routines and approaches can be useful raw material for a novel response to the unexpected (Moorman & Miner, 1998b).
Memory of the “givens” in improvisation, the original inspiration, the organizational vision, the boundaries of available resources, and ready access to various dimensions of knowledge (representational, reflective, and relational), as well as past organizational routines and effective responses are all dependent on a present moment lived experience that includes a relationship to the past and (in the case of vision and goals) the imagined future. This capacity is highly valued on the improv stage. Recently I brought a group of students to a performance at Chicago’s IO. During the post-show discussion a student asked the improvisers, “What quality or competence do you think makes someone a great improviser?” One of the seasoned players responded, “A high point of reference. By that I mean, someone who is well read, is up on current events and popular culture and can draw on any of it at just the right moment. That makes for a very rich improvisation.”
For improvisers both in the theater an organizational settings memory itself does not impede successful improvisation, but the individual’s  relationship to memory and the context (and culture) within which the improvisation is occurring. In other words, memory of the “way we’ve always done things” can be either a limiting routine, or (with “Yes, and…”) a springboard to a novel response.
Balancing Creativity and Constraint
When you think about the givens that you must play within in your organization or work, what systems, process and strategies do you use to help you maintain a lively relationship to them?
Halpern, C., Close, D., & Johnson, K. H. (1994). Truth in comedy: The manual of improvisation. Colorado Springs, CO: Meriwether.
Moorman, C., & Miner, A. S. (1998a). Organizational improvisation and organizational memory. Academy of Management Review, 23(4), 698-723.
Moorman, C., & Miner, A. S. (1998b). The convergence of planning and execution: Improvisation in new product development. Journal of Marketing, 62(3), 1—20.
Vera, D. M., & Crossan, M. (2004). Theatrical Improvisation: Lessons for organizations. Organizational Studies, 25(5), 727-749.

From Workplace to Playspace in High-Pressure Organizations

How do we create playspace in very serious, high-pressure, high-stakes environments? I have written about some notable examples of playspace in banking describing the high-engagement experience that Umpqua Bank co-creates each day in From Workplace to Playspace. But what about other high-stakes environments? What about in health care?

How do we make room for engagement, fresh ideas, and open communication when the stakes are literally life and death and there are never enough hours in the day?

Recently, an old friend from high school contacted me to let me know that he was in town for a medical conference. Before reaching out, my friend Dr. John Lanaghan, had poked around my website and without being asked, offered a beautiful answer to this question via email:

“I got to watch one of your recent interviews. Interesting. But I thought that wouldn’t work in a medical workplace–no time for play. Then I kept reflecting on it and realized (long story) how I noticed that it did. I had been at one office for 5 yrs and made an effort to enjoy my time with my co-workers by chatting, celebrating birthdays, kid activities, and playing when possible. Then 5 months ago I started splitting my time between two sites. Suddenly my old site was a bummer and the new location was a pleasure. After your video I realized that I had stopped doing the fun things with the old group, while the new job involved hospital rounds where there was lots of walking and talking and joking. Now I have made an effort to make it to lunch at the same time as my coworkers at the old place and some of the enjoyment of the job is returning.”

When we met for dinner the next night, John shared more about his work. He has spent much of his career in family medicine at the V.A. Medical Center in Iowa City, and had recently begun splitting his time providing palliative care, also in the V.A. system. He acknowledged the challenge of negotiating around large egos and the medical system itself. These were not insurmountable, however, as his own experience and efforts attest. John’s reflections show a deep and intuitive understanding of the ways we can create the space for the play of new ideas and connections in our everyday conversations and interactions. Playspace is not always (or even often) about our traditional conception of play—it is about the space that enables us to engage as whole human beings.

Thank you, John Lanaghan, M.D., for sharing your reflections and to all who co-create playspace doing extra-ordinary work in often challenging circumstances each day!

Five Ways to Make Space for People to Play with New Ideas and Perspectives

As often as I balk at prescriptive approaches to creating playspace, I am asked for examples of how others are doing it in their organizations. Below is a short list of innovative approaches from a wide range of organizations. Some are from “From Workplace to Playspace,” others I have heard from workshop participants and readers around the country. I hope that you will be inspired and “get permission” from them to experiment with approaches that fit for your organization.

1) Warm-up Your Day. Umpqua Bank, a thriving regional community bank, featured in the book, begins every day across its more than 175 locations with something CEO, Ray Davis calls a “Motivational Moment.” Every single employee gathers in the lobby at each location to join in a group activity to boost their energy and enthusiasm for the day. Anyone can lead the session, and the only guidelines are that it cannot be political or religious in nature. This means that Umpqua associates start their day singing, dancing, improvising, playing games such as Marshmallow Dodge Ball and generally building the camaraderie, good will and focus that has landed them on Fortune’s 100 Best Companies to Work For list the last four years in a row.

2) Warm-up Your Meeting. Research shows that people are more creative if they engage in some sort of light-hearted creative activity before they take on a new challenge (Conti, Amabile, & Pollack, 1995). Anything from 60 seconds of Be. Here. Now. time (see demonstration video) to engaging in a brainstorm about how to solve some seemingly impossible challenge (e.g. How can we eliminate world hunger? How can we become a totally paperless office? How can we use migrating birds to deliver our communications?), the more outlandish, silly and/or impossible the challenge, the better.

3) Argue a Different Point of View. Skilled debate teams regularly switch sides to become more adept at their craft. You can build your team’s critical thinking skills in a similar way. If you see a passionate debate come to a deadlock, ask the key proponents from each side to argue for another option. Ask others to list the pros and cons as they emerge. This is also an effective strategy if everyone seems to be getting cozy with one point of view. Step back and ask people to argue for the opposite view, or for a point of view that is not represented in the room (e.g. Play the role of the front-line worker, customer, student, child, non-English-speaking immigrant, senior citizen). What new possibilities emerge when you consider the other side? Are there ways to take these concerns into consideration?

4) Play. There are endless lists of games and contests that can bring more play (as in flexibility) in the system, levity, build relationships and open up more space for possibilities. Some of my favorites include Google’s “Pimp My Cubicle” Contest, and various guessing contests, such as those inviting employees to match baby pictures, hobbies, or pet photos with their owners. These have significant value in getting people to connect outside of their formal roles and responsibilities, which goes a long way in building relationships and social capital—that enhance collaboration and resource sharing.

5) Say, “Yes, and . . .” Anyone who has taken a basic improv class (or attended one of my playspace sessions) knows that “Yes, and . . .” is the secret to successful collaboration and idea generation. It is also key to making space for more possibilities. It simply means that we replace the word “but” with the word “and” and look for every opportunity to build on our colleagues’ ideas. Saying “yes” does not mean we are going to implement every idea, simply that we are willing to explore its possibilities. Most innovative solutions began as crazy impractical ideas that benefited from some generous “yes, and-ing.” Take it for a test drive and let me know how it worked for you!

This list is just a start. Please post your ideas for making more space for the play of new ideas and perspectives in the comment section below!

— Conti, R., Amabile, T. M., & Pollack, S. (1995). The positive impact of creative activity: Effects of creative task engagement and motivational focus on college students’ learning. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 21, 1107–1116.

Three Ways Fools Foster Creativity

One of the most powerful influencers of the available space for new ideas and perspectives are the people who are willing to be “foolish” when everyone else around them is overly stressed, serious, or attached to their own ideas. It is particularly apt to celebrate these fools today, a day where we play practical jokes, take ourselves a little less seriously, and loosen our grip on our well-honed “brand identities.”

My father, pictured here, was the earliest “April Fool” in my life. In my formative years, he was an architect by day, as well as a master of silliness and innovation. There was no idea or adventure too outlandish to at least get air time, if not actual exploration and implementation—including designing a childhood fantasy room for me with no walls, hanging from the ceiling, and seriously considering building a small airplane in the garage (he was also a pilot) that he would fly to and from work using the pond behind our house as his landing strip.

As with most of our parental relationships, mine with my father, became more complicated than this early role he played for me. And, today, I choose to celebrate his foolishness and all of the playspace he gave me permission to explore in my own life and work. I invite you to celebrate the April Fools in your life, today, too, and acknowledge all of the ways they foster innovating, learning and changing around them:

April Fools Take Permission: They don’t wait around to find out what the rules are, or monitor their behavior for fear of what others might think or say. Permission-Taker’s foster creativity and learning by provoking our sensibilities, pushing the envelope and sometimes making us a bit uncomfortable. These permission-takers create more space for all of us to step out of our familiar ways of thinking, being and doing and risk a bit of foolishness ourselves.

April Fools Give Permission: By being the first, biggest and/or loudest to play around with new ideas, experiment with new identities, create more play in the system, and room for improvised play, April Fools give everyone else permission to do the same. The safety and encouragement they foster are essential for many people to risk the discomfort that comes with exploring the previously uncharted territory of innovating, learning and changing.

April Fools Help Us Lighten Up: I once heard a lab director report that he knew his scientists were on the brink of a new discovery when he heard laughter coming down the hallway. It is often in the midst of silliness when we can literally play around with new ideas and perspectives, and make break-through discoveries and insights.

Just as the fools and court jesters of the Middle Ages and beyond took permission to say things to royalty that others wouldn’t dare, when we ourselves risk foolishness, we can provoke fresh thinking and new perspectives, and help others loosen their grip on their cherished identities and routines. Long live the fool!

Purposeful Play

One of the common misconception about play is that it is necessarily purposeless, and therefore can’t possibly have any place in business. Harvard scholar and jazz pianist (and mentor) Frank Barrett calls improvised play a form of “disciplined imagination” reminding us that play can also be wildly productive and innovative.

What does purposeful play require?

Naming the Purpose: Whether the purpose is to play a game, energize a team, or create space to generate new product ideas, naming the purpose of the play is essential for engaging and aligning the passion and energy of all collaborators.

Making Space for the Play of New Ideas: This means valuing the space and its necessity for ideas to play within it enough to: Not check email, answer the phone, and engage in distractions, as well as fostering the relational, generative, safe, timeful and provocative dynamics necessary for engaged creative collaboration.

The Discipline of Playing Time: Star athletes and breakout artists mature their talent by dedicating hours and hours of playing time—not now and then, but routinely, with dedication and commitment that values both the process and product of their play.

Curiosity: Approaching the playing space with an attitude of inquiry, rather than a singular focus on perfection. Playspace is space for experimentation and exploration. People who play with purpose are always looking for a better, more interesting, and innovative way.

Persistence and Perseverance: People who are fully engaged are much more likely to persevere through the inevitable twists and turns of innovating, learning and changing. Returning to the essential core that sparked your passion for playing in the first place can regenerate the motivation and commitment to forge ahead and engage the discipline that allows the imagination to flow again.

Purposeful play transcends the work-play dualism that leads many to dismiss play as inappropriate for serious endeavors. What could be more serious for business than a commitment to making space for innovating, learning and changing?

The Tryanny of the Task

The other day at the start of a meeting with my colleagues I noticed an interesting impulse. I knew we had a lot on the agenda and a relatively short time to move through it all. I had the impulse to abandon our few minute ritual of taking some Be. Here. Now. Time to get into our bodies, release distractions and become present to ourselves and the collaboration at hand. In my anxiousness to get to the task, I also considered dispensing with a brief creative warm-up, another ritual we have adopted to bring playspace to life in our collaborations.

Gratefully, when I gingerly proposed “diving in”, Brandy and Christian spoke up and brought me back to our shared commitment. It was humbling to see how I, facilitator and champion of all things playspace and creative collaboration, can also fall prey to the tyranny of the task. The draw to get on with business can so easily eclipse the very presence and life energy that allows us to show up to that business with our whole person, and in the spirit of collaboration and discovery.

One of the many delightful paradoxes and creative tensions in playspace is that when we embrace the process, the product is oh so much richer and our level of engagement and access to creativity so much deeper—as it was in our meeting the other day. We didn’t just check off our agenda items, but had new insights and ideas at each turn AND we did so within our agreed-upon time frame!

The good news is that when we have embedded and reinforced the values of playspace in the organization, even when we momentarily succumb to the siren song of the task, we will have colleagues